How I Plot Novels

Posted on December 11, 2011 by


Fallen Limb & Stump by AmyStein

Fallen Limb, 2010, Wood marquetry on found tree limb, 76″ x 14″ x 8″
Stump, 2011, Wood marquetry on found tree limb stump, 4″ x 4″ x 6.5″

My novel begins, invariably, with an image I’m compelled to describe. I take great care with imagery; I like to look at something much more closely than most writers, so I must be certain the image can be fully grasped in few words — otherwise I’ll make it ridiculous, if not pompous. I’ll spend hours choosing words, phrasing, and punctuation. I’ll look at the image in my mind’s eye a lot to be sure it matches up with what I’ve written — it can be the mental equivalent of a still photograph, a video, a 3-D diorama.

It can take up to ten hours of intense focus to write a scene like that. Most of that time I’m not writing at all; I’m sitting in front of the computer, coffee in hand, staring sightlessly at the screen, inner machinery flicking through dictionary entries, ordering words, jumbling them up again. It’s like the Mad Hatter’s printing press has installed itself in my head; I’ll write a word or two, delete it, write another, delete, write a phrase, change a word, make a dash into a semicolon, delete it — and so on until each sentence is perfect. (They’re almost never actually perfect; I’ll go back and change most of them in subsequent read-throughs.)

After the scene is done, I’ll write something that fits the scene into the whole. I fashion characters and a bare bones plot around the scene I’ve already written. It’s like composing a sonnet: there’s a structure you must create around, and it must look incidental, not contrived. Sonnets are best when they seem to have been written as sonnets accidentally; so it is with the initial scene. This is entirely frustrating and I’ll go through ten or twenty plots before I find one I sort of like, and then scrap it and go through another ten or twenty plots. I tend to design characters first, then a plot summary. I’m a product of my education: more interested in character than plot. The first chapter will be easy to write once I have a main character, a setting, and the most basic elements of a plot.

Now imagine a fractal tree, which branches in any number of ways. You have a black pen, and it’s your job to mark the right path until you reach the smallest branch of the tree. Every branch you follow has rules, which add to all the rules you’ve accumulated before. At every junction, you must choose the path that is consistent with all the other paths you’ve chosen.

That’s how I plot. Once I have chapter one, I write chapter two based on the rules I’ve established for the book whilst writing chapter one — and so on and so forth until the book is done. At about chapter ten, I’ll have the book entirely plotted from start to finish. It doesn’t mean I should let up on myself; I still need to make certain that everything I write fits with everything I’ve already written.

To make things even more complicated, I tend to start chapters in the way I started chapter one: an image, which must then be slotted into the whole. Sometimes I’ll plan the imagery in a chapter ahead of time, which makes things easier from a plotting standpoint, but much more difficult when it comes to sentence-by-sentence drafting, because I’ll have to write to spec. I take much longer to write chapters like that, even when they must be done to suit the plot. I can’t just dash off any old thing that moves the plot ahead; I have to fit the tone and style of the chapter to all the ones I’ve written before, and that means trying to fake the Mad Hatter’s printing press.

Once the first draft is done, I’ll edit it. I can take anywhere between ten and a hundred passes to edit it until I’m satisfied. Most of the changes I make are at a sentence level, because these are easiest for me. Errors in tone don’t require any sort of distance to  see properly; I’ll fix them at every level of writing, from drafting to a finished manuscript.

I’ll find things that have been left hanging: bits of plot that were written to attach to something later in the manuscript. Most of them I’ll find and fix when I edit individual chapters or blocks of chapters, but there are always a few I have to tie up after the first draft is finished. Sometimes I have to shuffle chapters around or do a bit of rewriting to make everything fit together neatly.

I don’t do plunnies (plot bunnies, bits of plot that come as flashes of inspiration). It’s such an alien concept to me; I have to think about every bit of plot for ages before I can work out what I want. I’m jealous of writers who come up with plunnies; the flashes I get are always images or nearly-useless concepts. I’ll see a photograph of a woman carrying a dead child wrapped in paper — the beginning of Tyrant, which I’m writing on my typewriter — or think, “I want to write an old man. Maybe a fisherman,” — the start of The Fisherman and the Olm, which was also inspired by my Serbian friend Marija and our mutual love of Slavic folktales.

I’m trying to train myself to come up with detailed plots before I jump in, but they’re always such limp, wilted things. Here’s the story of my first NaNoWriMo: I wrote out a detailed plot, got the flu on September 30th, came back a few days late, and realised that writing this book was going to feel like colouring a mural by number, or doing a 70,000-word mad libs. Ick.

So I’m curious. What does plotting feel like for you? If you’re the sort of person who plots rigorously, how on earth do you manage to keep up with yourself? What do you do to keep yourself interested? If you improvise the entire way, how do you fit everything together?

Posted in: Books & Writing